October 13, 2023

Theatre: The Garden

Written by Murray Bramwell

With thrift and wit and unnerving candour, Theatre Republic’s intriguing new play examines in microcosm the inescapable reality of discrepant worlds and insufficient good intentions.

“This play has never been comfortable,“ Emily Steel writes in her program notes for The Garden. “It was uncomfortable to write and if I’ve done it properly it will be uncomfortable to watch.”

And she has done it properly. In a compact sixty minutes she has produced a crowded hour of questions and perspectives that are gnarly and unsettling. It is not preachy or admonishing, instead, Steel, with her genial gift for small, familiar, sometimes amusing, but very telling detail, presents us with two people who share the same garden but come from different galaxies.

Evelyn is the co-ordinator of a community garden project, a task she manages along with a young child, a mostly absent husband, and a fractious group of fellow diggers – all cultivating organic principles designed to return harmony and regeneration to an abused and ravaged planet.

Into her domain walks Adam. He is an aged care worker, a refugee separated from all other family, and he is African. The conversation is awkward. In her haste to be welcoming, (and also exploit the funding possibilities of ticking “Inclusive” on the application) Evelyn falls into a series of gaffes, wrong assumptions, and stereotypes.

They have different notions about gender roles, family, and especially the pragmatic realities of subsistence food production. There is banter, and some warmth, but Steel is not going to gratify our wish for easy resolution. It takes a little while for us to realise that this is not that kind of play.

Theatre Republic director, Corey McMahon has again produced a brisk, deftly integrated production. Meg Wilson’s set, consisting of a decking floor and raised wooden garden beds with a part-finished wooden slat and wire fence, provides an earthy but well-resourced reality, sumptuously lit by Chris Petridis. The pastoral effect is enhanced by James Oborn’s sound design of budgies and bees (the latter transforming into a thunderous swarm at a later point.) The musical interludes, from the always-interesting Jason Sweeney, also contribute to the misplaced notion of Adam and Eve(lyn) in some kind of organic Eden.

The performances are brave and excellent. The characters are complex, flawed and not always likeable. Elizabeth Hay, as the frazzled Evelyn, is amusing when reminding her husband that it’s not called babysitting when he’s the father. But when her earnest efforts to connect to Adam fall into all sorts of ignorant racial and cultural assumptions we begin to cringe because that could well be our own blunders.

How little we know of our fellow citizens, how much we surmise by crude cultural profiling and presumption. Hay’s Evelyn is cheery, cranky, angry – and fleetingly aware that her efforts to be a good global citizen, like our own, are too often tokenistic and futile.

Rashidi Edward is compelling as Adam. When he questions Evelyn about the rules and “freedoms” of the community garden his interrogations reveal the contradictions and follies of the concept. Which community does it refer to ? And what does family mean when the aged are put into care and young children are separated from their parents ? Edward’s Adam has views that don’t sit easily in the community he is now in and he is angry and alienated by this.

These are the deep discomforts and unexamined contradictions Emily Steel is probing and exposing in this challenging play. It could be said that she has only given us Act One. And in Act Two we would have been supplied with a closer intertwining of purpose between our characters, bringing a gradual harmony and resolution to these spiky differences and difficulties. The usual narrative arc mending we have come to expect.

But instead we have to take them home with us, to ruminate on and try to understand them better.

And this in a week when we have matters of disturbing national and international consequence to ponder. Such as a referendum on a very modest proposal for a First Nations Voice blindsided by political opportunism. Or a mutually inflicted mass atrocity which is still unfolding for two million people in a confined community called Gaza.

Corey McMahon called The Garden “a big little play.” It has very current connections and reverberations – and well deserves our attention.

The Garden is playing at the Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre until October 14.

October 12, 2023 InDaily

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